Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Why Can't Virginia Woolf Speak English?

by Janadas Devan, Straits Times

In other words, there will be more like you and I (proficient Singaporean, Indian and Chinese speakers of the language) than of they (Mrs Woolf and Mr George W. Bush)

I was listening the other day to a CD of the BBC's archival recordings of famous British authors. Just when Virginia Woolf's immensely cultivated voice came crackling through the speakers, my 12-year-old son walked into the room. He listened for a moment to Woolf holding forth, and then burst out laughing.

It was not what she said that amused him, but how she said it. She pronounced 'echoes', for instance, as though she were a cave - ek-oooes; and she managed to insinuate a mystery into 'mysterious' - mist-yaaar-rious.

What seemed to me unusual but nevertheless within the realm of the familiar, sounded to my son outlandish. What seemed to me musical, sounded to him hilarious. I come from a generation of English-speakers familiar with the turns of 'native English' speech; my son comes from a generation more comfortable with what might be called 'Global English'.

A recent British Council report, English Next, authored by applied linguist David Graddol, tells me my son is by no means unusual in his response to 'native English' speech, at least of the British variety.

'In organisations where English has become the corporate language, meetings sometimes go smoothly when no native speakers are present,' writes Mr Graddol. 'Globally, the same kind of thing may be happening, on a larger scale.

'This is not just because non-native speakers are intimidated by the presence of native speakers. Increasingly, the problem may be that few native speakers belong to the community of lingua franca users. Their presence hinders communication.'

Ek-oooes? What is the woman saying? Mist-yaaar-rious? Why can't Mrs Woolf speak English?

As a result of such incomprehension, China now hires Belgian-trained English teachers - 'valued because of their experience in bilingual education'. And elsewhere in Asia, 'the definition of 'native-speaker teacher' has been relaxed to include teachers from India and Singapore'.

Evidently, Global English speakers have difficulty understanding the accents of core English-speaking nations. The poor Brits - first they lost their Empire; now they are losing their tongue.

That, indeed, is one of the main themes of this most enlightening report. English has no doubt triumphed as the international language - but it is not necessarily the English of the core English-speaking nations. And English is no doubt the chief language of globalisation - but it will probably not be the sole language of globalisation.

Let's take the first point first: Fifty years ago, the number of native English-speakers was second only to Mandarin-speakers. Now, because of falling birth-rates in the core English-speaking nations, there are as many native-speakers of Spanish, Hindi-Urdu and Arabic as there are native English-speakers.

But that, of course, is not the whole story. When second-language users of English are included, the number of English-speakers shoots up to equal the number of Mandarin-speakers - roughly one billion. Within a few years, there could be as many as two billion.

In China alone, an estimated 176.7 million people were studying English last year. To prepare for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese authorities have even established targets for English-proficiency among Beijing police officers: 80 per cent of them under the age of 40 to pass an oral English test at the basic level, 6,000 at the intermediate level, and 300 at the advanced level. It is entirely possible, says Mr Graddol, that in a few years there could be more English-speakers in China than in India.

This extraordinary expansion has blurred the distinctions between the 'native-speaker', 'second-language speaker' and 'foreign-language user' of English. Many European foreign-language learners of English, for instance, have in fact become second-language users. And many second-language users have become as proficient as native speakers.

The 'inner circle' of English-speakers - meaning those who are highly proficient in the language - now amounts to more than 500 million, of whom about 350 million are from the core English-speaking nations (Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). In a few years, that inner circle will consist of more non-core than core speakers.

In other words, there will be more like you and I (proficient Singaporean, Indian and Chinese speakers of the language) than of they (Mrs Woolf and Mr George W. Bush). It stands to reason, that it will be us, more than they, who will shape Global English. And if one includes the other 1.5 billion who will be speaking the language at varying levels of proficiency, it stands to reason that Global English will be shaped primarily by multi-lingual speakers. There will be 'a declining reverence of 'native speakers' as the gold standard for English', Mr Graddol predicts. English has certainly triumphed, but not the Anglo-Saxons.

Or to be more accurate, what will probably triumph is bilingualism. For concurrent with the spread of English, there is also the spread of other global languages. About 30 million people worldwide are already studying Mandarin, for instance, and this figure is expected to rise to 100 million in a few years. Even notoriously monolingual America is promoting bilingualism. What is on its way to becoming global is not so much Global English, but the ability to communicate in more than one language.

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